Enjoy this informative and witty essay by Jasper Bark, author of Way of the Barefoot Zombie. In his essay Bark explores the appeal of the zombie in terms of economic downturn. This essay, and more like it on the art of writing the zombie, can be found in Zombie Writing!.
Over-Drawn of the Dead
The way the zombie has gripped the popular imagination over the last few years has been as unstoppable as an outbreak of the undead. At the same time, we have been undergoing the worst economic downturn in living memory. For me there is an undeniable link between these two facts, one that I looked at in my recent novel Way of the Barefoot Zombie and which I would also like to explore in this essay.
It’s my contention that that whenever the economy takes a nosedive, and social unrest kicks off, then the zombie’s stock starts to soar. To test this theory lets look at the first time the zombie appeared in popular western consciousness.
The zombie was first introduced to the West in the best selling Haitian travelogue The Magic Island, written by the alcoholic adventurer, and Aleister Crowley sidekick, W B Seabrook. This was in 1929 when we were in the depths of the last great depression. Zombies held such a grip on the public imagination that, three years later, independent producers Victor and Edward Halperin brought them to the screen for the first time in White Zombie.
This was 1932 when the international stock markets were at their all time low, people all over the globe were rioting about food and jobs and some soup kitchens had lines nearly a mile long. It’s no surprise then that White Zombie was so popular, it created a horror film stalwart that was rarely off the screen until Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie in 1949.
The 50s and 60s were times of greatly increased prosperity and, with one or two notable exceptions, the zombie pretty much drops out of view for these two decades. It’s only when we hit the civil unrest of the late 60s and the recession of the 70s that we start to get great films like Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue.
The early 80s brought us another great renaissance in Zombie fiction, kicking off with Dawn of the Dead, a year before the decade started, and culminating in a number of great Italian zombie films, foremost among them Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters and the Gates of Hell Trilogy, not to mention the excellent comic series Deadworld, which is still going today. It also brought us global recession, strikes and a new protest movement.
So it would seem there is a connection between the popularity of walking corpses and the health of the economy. Economist are even turning to the zombie genre to describe the carnage in the world’s financial institutions. Terms like Zombie Bank, a bank that’s effectively bankrupt but kept alive by government bail outs, and Voodoo Accounting, the art of hiding your expenses and inflating your income, are seldom out of the pages of the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal.
So why is it that zombies are so popular during times of economic woe? What is it about these shambling, animated cadavers that appeals to us when we start to feel the pinch in our wallets?
For many people losing their job doesn’t just mean losing their income, it can also mean losing their identity. It stirs up fears of becoming a redundant member of society, with nothing better to do than shamble around supermarkets all day, dressed in rags like, well like a zombie. Those people lucky enough to keep their jobs might feel like the post apocalyptic survivors of your average zombie flick. Desperately trying to carry on with their normal lives while more and more people around them fall prey to the economic holocaust.
I think the appeal of zombies in hard times comes from more than just this simple metaphor though. The power of the zombie as an icon lies in its mutability. The zombie can symbolise many of the things that are wrong with our society and cause it to break down.
To begin with the zombie represented white colonialism’s fear of the rebellious native. Back in 1791 Haitian slaves, led by their Voodoo priests, had revolted against the French and established a free country. This was the first time a western empire had ever been successfully challenged and it sent shockwaves through Europe. The popular image of the evil Voodoo priest raping and torturing innocent white settlers was established.
By the time White Zombie came out in 1932, America was having to admit that its own twenty year occupation of Haiti had failed and these same fears were at the forefront of the American mind. Right up to I Walked with a Zombie, zombies in the movies were mindless black slaves of an invariably white magician. Though they were in thrall to their oppressor, they threatened at any moment to overturn his power and turn on him, like they did in Revolt of the Zombies.
When Romero borrowed a scenario from Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend, he not only added the post apocalyptic motif to the genre, he also introduced the theme of social conformity versus the rights of the individual. The American public were bitterly divided over an un-winnable war abroad and popular dissent at home much (much as they are today). Romero used the zombie to capture the neuroses that were bubbling to the surface as America once again struggled to come to terms with its new cultural identity.
In video games like Resident Evil the zombie reinvented itself once again, as the perfect target for a shoot ‘em up. They might look like human beings but they’re actually soulless husks. They’re the hordes of the enemy. The deadly other who is coming kill and convert us just for being the way we are.
So we don’t have to worry about their human rights. It’s okay to blow them away with abandon. It won’t even stain our consciences if we lock them up in detainment camps and torture them for intel because, like terrorists, they threaten us and we can’t identify with them. Therefore they’re not really human.
Zombies aren’t just ‘the other’ though. “They are us” is a phrase that appears in several films by Romero and other directors. The zombie might be seen as a secret reflection of our western society, mindlessly consuming material goods and natural resources as a zombie consumes flesh. Like a zombie in search of prey we overwhelm other cultures and convert them into consumer societies to expand our market. All the while we fear that this endless expansion will inevitably bring about the sort of societal break down that most modern zombie films depict.
Of course there are other themes I haven’t mentioned. During the cold war zombies played on our fears of the deadening economic conformity of communism. Contagion and our fears of a pandemic disaster run through the Return of the Living Dead series and were picked up by Danny Boyle in 28 Days Later.
Maybe the most personal thing that the zombie apocalypse represents to us all however, is freedom. Much as we like to believe we live in a meritocracy where hard work and talent are rewarded, our everyday lives don’t always support this. Many of us have day jobs we don’t enjoy, that don’t fulfill us or our ambitions.
We like to think we live in a free society too, but in times of economic hardship this can also seem less true. No matter what government we vote for, we end up having to pay taxes we don’t want and follow new laws we don’t support. We have to go to a work place we might not like and kiss the ass of a boss we very probably hate. We might not even be able to do the things we want in whatever free time we have left, due to lack of money or opportunity.
So it’s not hard to see why the fantasy of a world where all these things are swept away over night by a ravenous horde of walking corpses is so appealing. I think Romero’s Dawn of the Dead and Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead are arguably the two most popular zombie films for one good reason – they’re both wish fulfillment fantasies.
Who hasn’t wandered round a mall and dreamed of having it all to themselves, of running through every shop and helping themselves to whatever they want with no-one to stop them? Or come to that, camping out in their local pub with all their mates and no bar staff to call time.
What the apocalypse does, in our imagination, is free us from all the restrictions of the every day world. An every day world that is often so oppressive and restricting that the total breakdown of society, at the hands of the undead, actually looks kind of fun in comparison. Especially if we get a lock-in at our favourite pub and as many bar snacks as we can eat.
More than any other icon of horror the zombie has been able to mutate and change so it keeps on reflecting our worst or most hidden fears and desires. This is why the zombie appeals to me as a writer of horror novels and comics.
I like to break new ground in my fiction so I tend to avoid most of the old staples of the genre. The zombie is the only pre-existing monster I’m prepared to work with because I can still think of new ways to use them and fresh fears that they might represent.
That’s not to say that you can’t still do fresh and original things with vampires and werewolves. However vampires and werewolves do still symbolize pretty much the same thing today as they’ve always done. Their costumes might have been modernized but they represent the same primal fears and neuroses that they’ve always done.
And let’s face it, if a werewolf or a vampire ever got into a fight with zombie there is no contest over who would win. The vampire and werewolf could bite the zombie as many times as they like and it would still be a zombie. The zombie, on the other hand, only has to bite them once and they’re a Zompire or a Werebie. (Is it just me, or does a Werebie sounds like a particular perverse type of Furbie?)
For me, the very best horror is about more just the trappings of the genre, more than even fear itself. It’s a way of facing up to those things about our world that are barely faceable, of confronting taboos and saying the things no-one wants to say about the human condition. It works best when it’s about far more than just the fear of death or the threat of a monster.
The mutability of the zombie and they way it keeps reinventing itself makes it a perfect vehicle for stories that do just that. That’s why I find myself coming back to zombies time and again to mine new tales of satire and blood soaked social commentary.
Oh, and let’s not forget that they eat brains. And they never wash. And they always, always win. I mean how cool is that.
If you enjoyed this essay, check out more of Jasper’s work online at: